When I was a boy, I spent summers visiting my grandparents in South Dakota. We attended a little white Church of Christ right in the middle of our little town. I could name every member of the congregation for you to this day, simply by picturing where everybody sat, but for reasons you’ll see, I’m not going to do that. In fact, from now on out, I’ll change names to protect the feelings of people still alive.
Lloyd was my Sunday school teacher, a lean, grim man who was always as nice as he could be to me and the other kids. Lloyd had two boys, one, near my age, who was a friend of mine, Carl, and one younger, Tom. His wife, Ann, I didn’t know so well, but there was an air about her that I found off-putting.
She was very, very fat. She smiled a lot and seemed, in her friendliness with the other adults, to be pretending, or faking. And I heard disturbing stories, not only from other kids in church, but from boys around town. I heard that Ann made Carl and Tom eat outside on the steps, and that she was mean to them.
MY GRANDMOTHER TOLD ME LLOYD’S STORY without much prompting.
“Ann isn’t Carl and Tom’s mother,” my grandmother told me. “Their mother Anita was a wonderful woman. But she died when the boys were young, and Lloyd thought the boys needed a mother, so he married Anita’s sister. That’s Ann.”
My grandmother also confirmed for me that Ann did mistreat Carl and Tom.
“She always hated them because they weren’t her kids,” my grandmother said.
It got worse. Lloyd and Ann had a baby of their own, Bret. When Bret grew up, it became evident he was retarded.
He was a chubby, merry, laughing little fellow, just not all there. “You can throw a ball to him and it’ll hit him in the head, and he’ll just laugh,” Carl once told me, out in the churchyard. Carl and Tom, Lloyd’s boys, took very good care of little Bret, took him everywhere. I saw the last of those boys when Bret was four or five years old. He had not yet begun to talk.
Meantime, Ann treated the two older boys worse and worse, and she got fatter and fatter. Lloyd, the father, grew more and more grim with his secret grief.
LLOYD’S WAS NOT THE ONLY SECRET SORROW in that congregation. A rotund middle-aged man named Jerry used to come to church once in a while and sit in the back pew with his face buried in his hand, sing all the hymns by memory, and cry.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked my grandmother.
She explained to me that Jerry was the brother of a widowed woman we knew well, one of our regular congregants. “He drinks,” she told me. “He can’t help it. Every now and then he comes to church to try to pull himself together, but then he drinks again.”
Ever since that time, as much as church as meant to me, I have been suspicious and reserved about churches. In the presence of a manifest evil like Carl and Tom’s stepmother Ann, why couldn’t we do anything? And make no mistake, we didn’t do anything. In later years, I heard that Carl had become, in the terminology of the day, a “juvenile delinquent,” and that he had gone to jail. I could not imagine my good friend being in that much trouble.
Years later, Jerry was still “the town drunk,” and not the only one either.
MY WIFE AND I BOTH IDENTIFY OURSELVES as evangelical, or born-again, Christians. Once you’ve made that confession, you are sealed as Christ’s own forever. Nothing can change that.
But, at various stages, I have stopped going to church, because some human fallibility, some shortcoming in the congregation itself, has brought me up short. As a church, we belong to Jesus Christ, not to any particular person, whether he be preacher, teacher, elder, or friend.
But those preachers, teachers, elders, and friends do mean something, and when something goes awry — when the church as a church just plain doesn’t work, and when I start to feel the way I felt as a child, that some of the grownups are faking it, or taking refuge in rigidity — then I start to feel that old uneasiness again, and find it a lot more comfortable to retreat to my Bible and my prayers and solitude.
Of late, that kind of thing has happened again, and I have stopped going to church. We’ll see how long it takes for me to get that old-time feeling again.
Is a church its people, or is it the body of Christ, or both? When you feel like certain people — perhaps key people — have let you down, what do you do?
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